Monday, August 16, 2010

Steve Slater Breakdown Just Tip of Iceberg


While the incident with a law breaking passenger that precipitated a meltdown of Jet Blue flight attendant, Steven Slater, has gathered international attention, it is merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. U.S. airlines and their employees have been suffering a financial and professional siege since the passage of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. Yes, Steven Slater cracked under the strain of being a professional flight attendant, doing his job, caring for the in-flight safety of a recalcitrant passenger, and perhaps wrestling with some personal issues. The very airline by which he is employed is a product of airline de-regulation: small, low cost airlines spawned to fill the voids created by the disappearance of once great carriers like TWA, Pan American and Eastern Airlines.

Yes, the U.S. government, under the guidance and promulgation of economist Alfred Khan, the late Senator Ted Kennedy and former President Jimmy Carter rammed airline de-regulation down America’s throat, fomenting ( as predicted by opponents of de-regulation ) the blood bath of competition that erased the safety net of economic stability maintained by the now abolished Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) originally formed to guarantee a stable air transportation system.

In the thirty plus years since De-Regulation, there has been perpetual financial chaos and bankruptcies among airline companies and the flying public now has to have a Passengers’ Bill of Rights to protect itself during air travel. Let’s take look at what the ever forgetful American flying public got in exchange for De-Regulation: 1) Loss of travel comfort as cabin interiors were modified to expand seat capacity of our aircraft, reducing leg room. (2) Once the blood bath from competition was completed and price wars ended, a handful of major carriers emerged to dominate the major city hubs, ie, United Airlines owns Chicago and Denver; American Airlines owns Dallas and Miami and shares Chicago with United; Continental Airlines owns Houston and Newark. Delta, now merged with Northwest Airlines for economic viability, owns Atlanta, Minneapolis and Seattle. What this all means is that these carriers dominate market share in these cities and have their way with passengers in operational practices and fares, except to the extent that they offer a handful of discounted seats to steal seats away from the lower cost competitors like the Jet Blues, Air Trans, Spirits and Southwest Airs. (3) Cost cutting pressures have induced airlines to seek strategies for lowering maintenance costs and, like U. S. manufacturing companies moving plants to Singapore, China and Vietnam, some of the FAA mandated aircraft maintenance has been farmed out to lower cost foreign contractors raising concerns about maintenance quality control. During the last gasps before Eastern Air Line’s financial collapse in 1991, maintenance supervisors were indicted for “pencil whipping” required aircraft repairs to keep aircraft flying and save on maintenance costs. (4) There was a time in the early seventies when passengers actually dressed nicely for air travel and received hot meals for breakfast, lunch or dinner. People bathed before travelling and there were no tank tops, tea shirts, flip flops as standard travel attire. (5) The low cost carriers that emerged after De-Regulation, like KIWI, New York Air, People Express and Value Jet lowered the bar on employee benefits and pay, forcing major airlines to follow suit to maintain their competitive edge. The result – a bag of peanuts or pack of cookies replaced your hot meal, thrown at you by an increasingly disgruntled flight attendant. (6) The industry shakeout cost literally thousands of pilots, flight attendants and ground personnel their jobs. It is not uncommon today to encounter pilots and flight attendants who have flown for multiple air carriers, and with each subsequent employment having to start over at new hire pay and benefits. And passengers are puzzled why some airline employees are operating on a short fuse. (7) The decline in airline employee morale as a result of underfunding, or discontinuation of, pension funds has abolished any sense of job security and professional enjoyment. Today, few pilots bother to share enroute information or points of interest with passengers; many don’t bother to get out of the seat to greet or say goodbye to passengers out of their loss of professional zeal.
And then the aviation world turned upside down with the tragic events of September 11th. To render some semblance of protection from terrorist threats the TSA was formed and airline employees were confronted with yet additional burdens of job stress, new anti-terrorist procedures, cabin safety concerns, and yes, lowered toleration for misbehaving passengers.

In the face of the new aviation realities, it is perfectly understandable that an airline employee might have cracked under the strain of an encounter with a passenger whose conduct should have resulted in arrest, incarceration and or fine. Yes, flight attendant Steven Slater may have demonstrated a flare for drama in his exit, but the widespread public support for resignation style is not surprising. His exit was not nearly as jaw dropping as the fifty-nine year old airline captain who was informed just before pushback from the gate that his retirement pension was being cut into half of what he was expecting for retirement in one year and he was being requested to take early retirement or risk losing that. After engine start and taxi out for takeoff, he was chewed out by a stressed out ATC ground controller for asking a repeat of taxi instructions. Having overdosed on the madness of it all, the captain set the brakes, shut down the engines, grabbed his flight bags, disarmed the front door emergency evacuation slide, lowered the air stairs and bid stunned onlookers a great day. Don’t cast blame on Steve Slater; he is merely symptomatic of a condition that started with De-Regulation. Have a nice flight!

The author of this piece is a retired Boeing 757 Captain with over thirty-five years as a commercial pilot and a combat pilot who survived almost 200 combat missions in a jet fighter. He is an Adjunct Professor at Mercer University and is the author of an amazing memoire, No Reason For Dying: A Reluctant Combat Pilot’s Confession of Hypocrisy, Infidelity and War.